This is a post I've been thinking about for some time, and it seems an appropriate kick-off for my seventh Vegan MoFo. When I started this blog, way back in the primordial mists of 2008, it was to explore my own culinary interests, to record kitchen experiments, and to recreate and reconnect with food in ways that hit the visceral, atavistic pulse points of "mom's (or dad's) home cooking" without eating other animals.
I love being vegan, and have never been shy about saying so, but it's apparent to anyone who reads this page that its main focus is on recipes, with occasional literary, anthropological, historical, cultural, and/or personal digressions. I find feeding people an enjoyable and effective form of activism, whether in person or by sharing dishes here, and it's also enormously rewarding. I'm always amazed and flattered when readers cook and eat my recipes, and gathering people I love around a table is among life's greatest pleasures.
As members of a small but growing demographic, vegans often find themselves cast as de facto ambassadors for a movement, and while this isn't necessarily a role for which anyone auditions, it's nonetheless an opportunity to bring attention to a lifestyle that privileges compassion. I take this position seriously, because it opens a space for veganism to be less mysterious and more accessible; even potentially "normal."
That last term is one that comes up a lot: I once had lunch with a friend who declared - after I'd quickly scanned the menu and modified something - "You're so normal about the whole vegan thing." I laughed and said that "normal" wasn't typically a word I'd apply to myself, but I appreciated her positive intentions, even if I wasn't entirely sure what she meant. What I do know is that the more "normal" veganism can become, the better it will be for everyone concerned: especially the animals, who probably don't care why they aren't eaten, only that they aren't.
Of course, negotiating this "normal" thing can be challenging, and sometimes entails a certain amount of tongue-biting. I'm fortunate to have thoughtful, intelligent friends, so I've largely been spared the horror stories one sometimes hears viz. family members sneaking animal products into things, forbidding vegans from bringing food to holiday dinners but neglecting to provide them anything to eat, or even those oh-so-original-ermagerd-I-have-never-heard-that-one-before "jokes" about People Eating Tasty Animals, animals being made of "meat," etc. In fact, if I were to list all the people who've sat at our table or invited us to theirs, gone out of their way to make sure we were looked after as guests, and/or just been generally wonderful, this post would go on forever. Suffice to say if you're reading this, you know who you are, and you are awesome.
When I do hear the occasional snarky comment, I usually don't respond, because I think those things stem from a place of genuine discomfort: it's far less painful to make a joke than to consider the ramifications of what's inflicted on billions of animals in order to satisfy our gastronomic preferences. Many of us know (and used to be) omnivores who "want to" or "wish they could" or "know they should" be vegetarians but aren't, because it would be too difficult for X, Y, or Z reason.
There are also many people (including our former selves) who comprehend the meat, dairy, and egg industries' cruelty but admit to putting hands over their eyes and fingers in their ears because they "can't deal with it." And it is hard to deal with; maybe even impossible. Which is part of why I finally opted out of the whole system: it's just so much easier that way. I don't have to worry where "my" chicken, or milk, or eggs come from because they're not "mine," and they were never meant for me.
On the one hand, I am heartbroken and angry at how we abuse and exploit other animals without regard for their suffering, their subjectivity, or their inherent value as beings completely apart from us and the anthropocentric contexts in which we enclose them. On the other hand, my real (i.e. academic) work privileges coherent, articulate arguments and effective rhetoric, so I am keenly aware of the power of words; if I'm going to talk about this subject in a public forum, I want what I say to be heard and understood. Despite the axiom about squeaky wheels getting grease, history has all too often shown that being perceived as "strident" or "combative" can get you dismissed, beaten, arrested, or worse. What's the point in shouting the truth from the rooftops if it makes the people you're trying to reach ignore (or throw rocks at) you?
On yet another hand (there are always at least three hands), I like to think that everyone is just a vegan waiting to happen, and it's been my practical experience that you catch more omnivorous flies with tasty casseroles than with graphic descriptions of factory farms or critical examinations of the intersections between animal abuse and misogyny, racism, classism, colonialism, speciesism, and any number of the other sociocultural ills that human flesh is heir to. Of course, I do have those conversations, but in particular contexts: my partner and several friends are engaged in the burgeoning field of critical animal studies, which provides many opportunities to explore the ways humans see, treat, use, and interact with other animals in Life, Literature, History, and Everything. I'm part of a large and diverse online community of amazing vegans that includes political activists, professional chefs, cookbook authors, animal rescue workers, business owners, parents committed to raising a generation of compassionate children, and yet more academics.
All these things are good, and they reflect veganism's increasing presence in the mainstream. Magazines and newspaper articles feature recipes and tout the ethical, environmental, and health benefits of a plant-based diet, restaurants offer more animal-free dishes, and an ever-growing number of people know what "vegan" means; even a recent conference trip to Iceland presented us with almost no difficulties.
But in the midst of all these developments, it's important to remember that this whole endeavor is about more than convenient dining options and exciting breakthroughs in ersatz meat: it's about compassion, about trying to reduce suffering and exploitation, and about making our world suck a little less. And for many of us who live with animals and recognize their dignity and their individuality, it's about - dare I say it? - love.
So while I plan to keep the Elizavegan Page's primary focus on food and cooking (and I promise my next post will properly engage with this year's theme), it's worth taking a pause at the start of yet another MoFo to remember why I'm doing this, and what - and who - is really at stake. And then I can head back into the kitchen and cook you some food.